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City of the Arts

For decades, Winston-Salem has been “The City of the Arts.” The Moravians, who settled the area in the 1700s, were known widely for their functional yet beautiful handiwork: pottery, cabinetry, guns, silver and tin wares. They also brought with them a strong musical heritage from Europe. Further, the Moravians were proponents of universal education. The groundwork for a thriving arts culture in the Winston-Salem area was laid by these German-speaking pioneers, whose art was interwoven with daily life.

In the early 20th century, the Junior League of Winston-Salem was instrumental in opening new channels and providing the resources for arts opportunities, such as the Children’s Theatre, early Civic Music programs, and art in public spaces and schools. The Arts and Crafts Workshop formed in 1945, later becoming the Sawtooth School for Visual Art. The Workshop provided classes, exhibits, and outreach initiatives. There was a national Junior League movement to “develop cultural arts programming across the country.” The local Junior League took the initiative, and with city leaders, formed the Arts Council, Inc., in 1949. It is widely acknowledged to be the first permanent, organized Arts Council in the United States. In May of that same year, Forsyth County’s Centennial was celebrated, culminating with an elaborate pageant at the Bowman Gray Stadium. “Forsythorama: A Lantern in the Pines” was a spectacular production, attended by more than 10,000 people, with a cast of over 500 volunteers. It featured actors in frontier and Civil War era costumes, bands, acrobats, square dancers, a covered wagon, Keystone cops and horseless carriages. The presentation was based on an outdoor drama by Thomas L. Carroll, and featured original music composed by Dr. Charles Vardell, both of Winston-Salem.

By the middle of the 20th century, despite the critical foundation to the arts that the early residents of Salem had provided, the village itself was in peril. The encroachment of modern development was obliterating the old Moravian settlement. A Citizens Committee was formed in 1947 to address these concerns. Under their chairman C.T. Leinbach, the committee recommended zoning protection for the historic district, which directly resulted in the formation of Old Salem, Inc. in 1950.

In 1958, the Arts and Crafts Workshop moved to its new home, the J.G. Hanes Community Center. The center was hailed as “the envy of other North Carolina cities and a model of civic mindedness and cultural sophistication even on a national level.” The facility housed the Arts Council and its 22 organizations, the Chamber of Commerce, and a theatre. When some of the member groups had a deficit of over $50,000 in 1961, fifty corporate donors and seventeen hundred individuals in the community donated more than enough to cover the shortfall. The generosity and foresight of boardroom executives to everyday citizens played an important part in the establishment of this facility and the organizations it housed.

In the 1960s, several North Carolina cities competed for the opportunity to be home to the North Carolina School of the Arts (now The University of North Carolina School of the Arts). Winston-Salem was selected, the funds were appropriated by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1964, and the school opened the next year. The UNCSA provides the community with theatre, music, and dance year round, and produces the beloved Nutcracker ballet every Christmas season.

Throughout the 20th century, the people of Winston-Salem continued to cultivate and support a broad spectrum of arts organizations and institutes: Winston-Salem Symphony and Winston-Salem Youth Orchestras, Moravian Music Foundation, Little Theatre, MESDA, Delta Fine Arts Center, Reynolda House, Diggs Gallery, National Black Theater Festival and North Carolina Black Repertory Theater, SECCA, Piedmont Craftsmen, as well as the refurbishment of two local treasures: the Stevens Center (previously the Carolina Theatre) and the R.J. Reynolds Auditorium.

Building upon its arts heritage, the City of the Arts enters the 21st century with more exciting, forward-looking opportunities in the arts: a lively Arts District, the annual RiverRun Film Festival, an Arts Based Elementary School and Arts Magnet High School. The contributions of local institutions of higher learning – UNCSA, Salem College, Winston-Salem State University, and Wake Forest University – serve to enhance the local arts experience for everyone. Winston-Salem’s unique and rich tradition of diverse arts opportunities, supported by citizens of every status, makes this a true “City of the Arts.”


“10,000 See Forsyth Pageant, Climaxing Centennial Event,” Winston-Salem Journal. May 13, 1949.

Wellman, Manly Wade, et. al. Winston-Salem in History. Winston-Salem: Historic Winston, 1976.

Preslar, Dorothy. The Old Salem Newsletter, “Rockefellers Tour Village,” December 1958, Vol II, No. 1. Old Salem, Inc. 5, 7-8.

Sanders, James H., III. Founders: A Social History of a Community School of Art. Winston-Salem: Sawtooth Center for Visual Art, 2001.

Spaugh, R. Arthur. The Old Salem Newsletter, “Remarkable Cooperation,” September 1960, Vol. IV, No. 1. Old Salem, Inc. 4-5.

Tursi, Frank V. Winston-Salem: A History. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, 1994. 34-37, 50-53, 258-259.

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